1984 & I MICHAEL SINGH
In 1984, horrendous crimes were committed against the Sikhs in the very land of their origin. To commemorate this horrific event, we at sikhchic.com had asked our regular columnists, as well as our contributors and readers, in 2009 (the 25th annivbersary of the tragedy) to share with us the impact 1984 had had on their lives. We requested personal stories and anecdotes, as well as an attempt to capture their inner thoughts and deepest ruminations on what 1984 meant to each one of them and their loved ones - without going into a litany of facts and figures or a listing of the injustices to date, all of which would invariably be covered with due diligence elsewhere. We presented these personal perspectives to you throughout the twelve months of 2009. [They can be accessed now by going to the "1984" icon on the sikhchic.com homepage.]
The following was the second of that series entitled "1984 & I".
On June 1,1984, my brother Surinder and I were staying with the head of the Punjab's Criminal Investigation Department (C.I.D.) at his quarters in the Chandigarh cantonment in Punjab. His daughter was our classmate and we'd spent idyllic days playing badminton with the officers, taking tea, and laughing all day long.
A knock on the door just after midnight brought a groan from my brother Surinder.
"We're asleep, leave us alone!" he said in Punjabi.
It was our host himself. "Hurry," he said, "You must leave immediately!"
He put us in a silent jeep. It made no noise. Perhaps it was an electric car. Like a ghost, we moved across the Punjab landscape along the Grand Trunk Road and to the border, town unknown. Punjab was being sealed off for some huge event, also unknown.
The driver dropped Surinder and me off at the border. Like any half-white young men raised in the upper echelons of India, we had as strong a sense of entitlement as royalty. If Punjab's borders were being sealed, so what! That only meant we had to infiltrate and see exactly what was going on.
We swore we would return.
Two weeks later, news began to filter out across India, of an assault on the Golden Temple, the Sikh Holiest of Holies.
Something terrible had happened. We had to go and see!
Surinder was afraid that people could be suffering. I was excited at the adventure. By now all roads were blocked with octroi (excise duty) posts.
We wore Afghani disguises. Well, for Surinder, Afghani shalwar kameez was no costume, but merely daily wear. He much preferred its longer cut and embroidered cuffs, to the shorter Punjabi version. I usually wore button-down oxfords, chinos and tennis shoes.
We both looked exactly like Afghanis now, with our custom-made Afghani clothes, our light skin, dark hair, and my green eyes. Our American passports would betray our subterfuge, yes, but who would ask? We were fearless.
Anyone who questioned us, we knew we'd threaten with a phone call to the head of the C.I.D.. Well, I would threaten. Surinder would mollify. He was much more diplomatic and basically just a friendlier dude.
An octroi guard turned us back. We waited until dark and in the moonlight we detoured across sugar cane fields and canals and finally made our way to the Grand Trunk Road, where we hitched rides all the way to Amritsar.
The drivers all told us the same thing: that Indira Gandhi had invaded the Golden Temple and killed a lot of people and destroyed buildings.
Surinder was horrified. How many innocent people had died? He couldn't imagine. All the suffering and pain, and those gorgeous 16th century buildings. Destroyed? This could not be.
He was most worried about the Akal Takht, a building I'd never heard of. It was the Seat of Sikh Temporal Authority [as opposed to the Golden Temple itself sitting across a causeway, straddling the water and representing the Seat of Spiritual Authority of the Sikhs], a huge Sikh Centre, I found out later.
We'd visited the Golden Temple as children. Sikhism was the religion of our father who was raised in a Hindu family, to be a Sikh. That was the tradition still prevalent back in the 1930's, to raise your firstborn as a Sikh.
I matched the intensity of Surinder's horror, with pure schoolboy excitement. To him, India was the home he loved, full of people he loved. To me, India was a giant tourist playground. My callousness about possible sufferings made him contemptuous. But we both agreed we had to see just what was going on, because the press was banned and nobody really seemed to know anything for sure.
Upon approaching Amritsar, the truck we were riding in was waved to a stop and all of us were ordered out. I had already fastened my tape recorder with gaffer's tape to the small of my back. And I had tucked my 16mm Bolex camera into a filthy old jhola (cloth bag). When I raised my arms, a soldier patted me down but missed the tape recorder, and when he spun me around, I shifted the jhola quickly so he didn't see it under my shawl, and off we went to see what destruction Mrs. Gandhi had created.
Tanks and submachine guns and barbed wire greeted us at the Golden Temple. We circled around to the medieval streets in the back. Crooked winding lanes were dotted with Gurkha Regiment guards, imported because their foreignness would imply that they would not be taking sides in what was clearly the most traumatic event to have taken place in our lifetime in India.
"The police hacked off the arms of people and we collected their torsos in gunny sacks," said one of the residents who dared to greet us in the empty streets. He spoke in Punjabi, into my tape recorder. For half an hour, we interviewed him as he described the utter carnage of three days of gruesome battle that is now known with the rather beautiful name Operation Blue Star.
"Blood ran in the streets," he said. "Here." But we saw nothing, because the streets had been cleaned up by now, two weeks later.
A Gurkha guard came towards us, and we hid the tape recorder and moved on towards the Golden Temple.
There was a line of poor people, laborers. We joined the line. We entered from the southern gateway. Everything was absolutely quiet. We looked up and went into a sort of dreamstate or trance.
This could not be happening: the familiar minarets and many of the domes of the Golden Temple's sacred and historic buildings were completely destroyed. Pockmarks from submachine guns turned surviving edifices into shattered honeycombs, damaged beyond repair.
"The Akal Takht!" moaned Surinder. It was half-destroyed. How could this have happened? And why?
The Golden Temple and surrounding buildings were more important to the Sikhs, than the Al Aqsa Mosque or the Kabaa to Muslims, or the Wailing Wall to Jews, or St. Peter's to Catholics. And here it was, mostly destroyed.
The line moved. Soon we emerged into the encircling walkway known as the parikarma. Perhaps a hundred people from the line were carrying bricks, rebuilding the 16th century walls of marble, with crude replicas of white plaster.
With my Nikon, I quickly took a close-up showing the line between old and new: the old was marble inlayed with precious stones in the pattern of a flower. The new was whitewash with paint continuing the flower's leaves. Whoever was in charge, was literally whitewashing over history.
There was no noise amongst the workers. It was as quiet as a church. Perhaps Dresden felt like this after the Allied bombings of civilians.
I cranked up my spring-wound Bolex and tested it while it was still in my jhola. Immediately, its echo seemed to fill the entire parikarma! Two guards with rifles glanced over at us and started walking and motioning. "Hey, come here!" they said. We pretended not to hear, and headed for the main gate.
We managed to get out of there quickly, descending the main stairs, only to see that our exit from the compound itself was completely blocked. Of course it was.
We were on the inside, this time, of the rows of barbed wire and the tanks and submachine guns. We couldn't retreat back inside. We were trapped. This was serious business. There would be no calling our host, the head of the C.I.D. Nobody would have any patience with us, and if they suspected us of being foreigners, we would have to persuade them that we were not spies. Was it a good thing that we were carrying American passports, or a bad thing? We didn't want to find out, either way.
A man started to yell at us. "Come here!" It was not a guard, but a soldier, with a submachine gun pointed right at us. We ignored him. Not a good idea to ignore a command from a man with a submachine gun.
"Just keep walking," said Surinder. We noticed a spot where the barbed wire was spread just enough so one could hop across it safely. We'd seen a man doing it. We headed for that spot. Now two soldiers with submachine guns shouted "Hey, don't go over there. Come here!"
I felt like tiny jet rockets were attached to my ankles, pushing me to run. I had to force myself to walk calmly, pretending not to hear them. Soon a bullhorn came on. "Stop, stop! Come here!"
"We're going to get shot," Surinder said. "We'd better stop."
We lifted our hands up and turned to face our executioners. We walked slowly towards them. "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" we said in Punjabi.
But they were not Punjabis. They too were Gurkhas. They didn't understand a word of Punjabi.
As we got closer, we saw flashes of anger in their eyes. An officer approached. "What are you DOING?! You'll get ripped to shreds in that barbed wire! Please use this passage if you would like to exit, sir."
Two weeks later, full color pictures of the destruction would appear in India - taken by another infiltrator, the great photographer Raghu Rai.
Twenty years later, Raghu told me he'd hidden his Nikon in a row of flowers that he'd set onto a platform with candles and incense. He and his assistants carried it in over their heads, right past the machine guns, claiming to be paying their respects. His crystal clear color photographs were flashed all over the world, showing for the first, and only, time, complete views from all angles of the true horror of Indira Gandhi's crimes. What a brilliant, important, and gutsy thing he did.
Reasonable people everywhere were convulsed with horror and grief. The Golden Temple itself seemed relatively untouched, but half of the surrounded buildings, including the great Sikh Reference Library, were completely leveled. How would Sikhs react? What was going on? Why had Mrs. Gandhi done this?
* * * * *
We flew down to Madras to hang with our parents.
They lived there, doing social work for an organization that gave out micro loans to widows, and hosting inter-faith events with speakers from all over the world, and writing papers on local and national politics and religion.
They were always somehow involved in many levels of India, whether they lived up north near Amritsar where they'd raised us, or on the Deccan plain in the early years, or now in the south where they were both, essentially, foreigners.
My mother was a white woman from Connecticut, and my father was, linguistically and culturally, from just as far away: Punjab. But they liked Madras for its sophistication and friendships.
My father explained Operation Blue Star to my brother and me in a way that the national press dared not. Essentially, Mrs. Gandhi wanted to hold onto power. That was the alpha and omega of it all. She'd lost that power in 1975 after overstepping her constitutional limits, declaring a national emergency, and in general cutting everybody off at the knees who dared get in her way.
My father knew her. She didn't used to be like this. She was a sophisticated lady. She spoke fluent French. She tried to hire my father twice, to run some educational program or something. She visited our house in the Punjab. What had turned her ugly?
According to my father, she had a flaw, just like the heroes and heroines of Greek tragedies. That flaw was that she loved her debauched and sadistic son, Sanjay. He had egged her on to push for forced sterilization of poor farm and city women and men. He had beaten up all his political enemies by ordering around a band of thugs under his command. He was ruthless, mean, cruel and utterly free to treat India as his personal Petri dish for experimentation and ruin.
And she stuck by him. Soon mother and son had assaulted Indians' constitutional rights almost as mercilessly as would the Bush Administration post-9/11.
Unlike the United States, however, Indian democracy is strong enough to get rid of its leader should he or she run amok, and the Indian Supreme Court duly threw her out of office for her crimes.
Clawing herself back into power would require some help, so she recruited a charismatic religious leader with a third-grade education and a heart filled with desire for a pure and righteous India, where all were equal and justice reigned supreme. His name was Bhindranwale.
More importantly for her, Bhindranwale was a Sikh. Sikhs controlled the Punjab, and Punjab was India's wealthiest, most prosperous, most energetic and most powerful state. If he could deliver Punjab to her in the next election, she could maneuver her way back into her Congress Party's favor and then into the Prime Ministership again.
She armed him to the teeth with guns and propaganda tools. His audio cassettes filled even the remotest villages with calls mixing religion and politics.
And sure enough, in the next elections, he delivered Punjab for Sister, as he would call her.
And soon enough, the right dominos toppled at her feet, and she was Prime Minister again. The only hitch was: Bhindranwale would not give up his arms. In fact, he was now talking about creating a new Sikh region out of the Punjab. This was quite alarming. He must be stopped.
Being apprised of her plans and before Mrs. Gandhi could make a move, he'd transferred his headquarters and supporters into the Golden Temple itself. Why the authorities there allowed this to happen, my father didn't know. Perhaps they themselves were dreaming of a Sikh state.
"Pure folly, idiotic dreaming schoolboys," was my father's description of that whole movement. Perhaps Bhindranwale gave them no choice.
Mrs. Gandhi could have gone after him with a silent assassin. A food poisoner, or the good old-fashioned kirpan-to-the-kidneys technique, or perhaps someone with an umbrella tipped with a deadly chemical, like the Russians used to deliver an innocent looking but fatal jab at someone's shin. Or a Judas. In any case, something discrete.
But no. She lined up the Indian Army itself, surrounding the Golden Temple on a special holiday when it was full of thousands of pilgrims.
Bhindranwale was ready. His strategy and tactics were established by a retired Indian General, who had been the star in the War of Liberation that led to the creation of Bangladesh.
He'd joined Bhindranwale. His men had set up machine guns to fire six inches off the floor of the parikarma, cutting down anyone who entered. Small gunfire was exchanged, and then larger arms could be heard. The battle raged for three days. Hundreds of terrified pilgrims were trapped, and cut to pieces. Blood flowed in the holy reservoir, the Amrit-Sar.
Indira Gandhi got her man. And in the process, destroyed half the sacred buildings, burned the Sikh Reference Library to the ground (after the troops had looted its treasures), and also attacked and ransacked dozens of other Sikh temples all over India.
And now, my father said, there would be retribution. How could there NOT be retribution? And what form would it take? Riots perhaps, but by whom, and against whom? Newspaper editorials debated the merits of firing, or retaining, Mrs. Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards. They could swing their automatic weapons in her direction and end her life in a split second. She should sack them immediately, said some. No, Sikhs would riot if that were so, said others. We wondered what the Sikh bodyguards themselves were thinking.
Then one afternoon while we were taking tea on our parents' Madras porch, the radio starting playing its signature classical Indian audio logo. Over and over and over. It was as if the radio station had basically shut down. The cook appeared. He said word on the street was that Indira Gandhi had been shot five times.
My father waved him off. Word on the street indeed! How ridiculous!
But the radio kept droning the same audio logo. Something clearly was wrong.
Soon the servant reappeared with a local tabloid, a totally disreputable "newspaper" with the news that Indira Gandhi had been shot. Again my father waved it off. Pure gossip-mongering. My mother and brother weren't so sure it was wrong, however.
I turned on my Bolex and filmed them taking tea, waiting for "real" news. We posed for a family portrait on the porch. I also turned on my tape recorder in case something came on the radio.
Suddenly, a voice on the radio: "This is All India Radio. The news, read by Pamela Singh. The Prime Minister, Mrs. Gandhi, is dead. She was shot by her bodyguards at her residence, One Saftarjang Road..."
We all looked at my dad for some guidance. He was shaking his head. "I don't know, I just don't know about this country," he said. "What a tragedy. She took a huge risk, and paid with her life."
The street outside was empty. People were staying indoors, perhaps afraid. We talked about India, and whether it still existed. "Maybe not," said my father.
"Maybe already the Punjab is breaking away as we speak," he said. "Maybe Assam is also gone, and maybe even Tamil Nadu," where we were. India didn't exist when my father was born. "Perhaps India was just a 37-year experiment," said my father.
"What's going to happen?" I asked my dad.
"More violence, now from the other side," he said. "All over India, perhaps."
Not wanting to miss out on anything, my brother and I decided to hightail it up to New Delhi.
We would stay with the Bishop of Delhi, Maqbool Caleb, and his family. The Calebs lived near Mrs. Gandhi's residence, in the old British Viceroy's Mansion. We would have to move quickly, as airports may be shutting down if there was a national emergency or riots or whatnot.
We immediately went to the airport, found a flight, and flew north the 1100 miles to Delhi's Paalam Airport. From there, a taxi to the Caleb residence. We marched in unannounced.
"Don't go back outside!" said Bishop Caleb. "They are pouring oil on people." I thought that meant some sort of religious ritual, so immediately I grabbed by Bolex and Nikon and tape recorder, and went outside.
There was a large crowd there waiting at the bus stand. Except the buses weren't leaving. They were just coming in, and dumping off passengers, and the drivers were walking away. So the crowd grew larger, and more restless.
Someone started throwing stones at shops. They ringed the Rakab Ganj, the huge Sikh shrine that was next door to the Bishop's compound. The shopkeepers shuttered their shops and fled. More stones. I took some pictures with my Nikon. I was scared someone would get angry, so I clicked with the camera held down at my waist.
The sky was getting dark. There was a huge column of thick black smoke rising from near the Sikh Temple. And a distant roar. It was quite exciting, like a movie set. I didn't see anybody pouring oil on anybody else. The mood was electric.
Then I saw a portly Sikh gentleman running for a bus. Four young men, Hindus, were also running for the bus. But there was no driver. The Sikh gentleman didn't make it to the bus. The four young men dragged him down!
Perhaps he was a pickpocket! Yes, he must've stolen something from them, because they were treating him rather roughly. I'd never heard of a Sikh being a thief in my entire life growing up in India.
"Sikhs are neither thieves nor beggars," my mother used to say. But what did she know. HER Sikh friends may not be thieves or beggars, but why shouldn't there be Sikh scoundrels, especially in a big city like Delhi.
A crowd formed around the fallen Sikh gentleman, and then I saw flames. And a black cloud of smoke as the crowd moved away from the heat of the flames. Only then did it occur to me. By "oil," the Bishop meant "petrol."
I immediately turned on my tape recorder, and raised my Bolex to film the lynching. "Where are you from?" said a voice nearby. I lowered the Bolex. "I'm from Madras," I said in my Punjabi-accented Hindi, about as convincingly as a Texan claiming to be from Massachusetts. He stared at the camera and I understood immediately that I had to put it down. Things were going to be happening that nobody there wanted filmed.
I felt a pair of eyes staring at me. It was a young Sikh in a red turban. His eyes were pleading. And sure enough, he started getting roughed up. He took one last glance at me and ran towards a truck full of police. But the police sat in their truck quietly, their rifles at their side, doing nothing. The young Sikh had no chance to reach them, and if he had, they probably would have done nothing, simply watching it all happen.
I thought to run after him, protect him. But all I could imagine was lying on the ground beside him, being beaten to death with my Nikon.
Soon he, too, was in flames, and a crowd surrounded his body on fire, watching him writhing about, no doubt in his final agonizing moments on earth. Black, sooty smoke rose and subsided.
I realized that I was in the middle of a massacre of sorts. Unlike in the movies, this one moved in fits and starts. There was no music. There was no sign in the sky that said "A massacre is happening." There was complete calm in between the convulsions of lynching. The crowd did not seem particularly disturbed or foaming like rabid dogs.
They were all young men with nice haircuts, and they were killing any Sikh they saw, almost methodically. I had a completely Sikh name on my passport, Mohinder Singh. What if someone should ask me for an identity check? Even one of the young men? Would I say "No"? Was I in danger?
I knew I could pass for white. I would pretend I didn't understand Hindi. I would play the American tourist. No, I decided the situation was a bit too harrowing. I would return to the Caleb's compound about 100 yards away. I kept my tape recorder rolling, and started to walk back.
Someone tugged at my sleeve. I leaped and immediately yanked myself away.
"Please sir, please taken me with you!" It was a young Sikh girl of about 12. "Please sir!"
I nodded and she followed me. So did a group of young men. The girl and I broke into a sort of trot. So did the young men.
As we neared the compound, I saw laundry being thrown over the wall, colorful laundry. Only it wasn't laundry. It was children being tossed to safety by their parents, over the glass-sharded wall and into the Bishop's gardens.
The gate of the Bishop's compound was chained shut. The gardener came running with the key, let us in, and quickly rechained the door. The young men arrived, leaned up against it, and starting shouting "Let us in!"
The mob grew larger. And louder. They had big sticks, and metal truncheons.
"Where in hell did you go, Mike?" said my brother. He was totally furious.
If Bishop Caleb was angry that I'd disobeyed him and gone out into where "they are pouring oil on people," he didn't show it. He was very calm.
Thirty women and children sat in the bedroom that my brother and I were using. The kids' eyes were popping. I wanted to tell them, "Hey look, I'm one of you. My brother and I are your brothers. We're half-Sikh. We are also in danger."
But that was completely phony. I knew that if the mob broke through the gate, I'd again play the American tourist, pretend I didn't speak Punjabi, and increase my chances of safety.
Outside, we heard firing in the direction of the adjacent Rakab Ganj Sikh Temple. And more smoke. And more people jumped a high wall and streamed from there and into the Bishop's compound. They had witnessed their relatives hacked to piece and burned alive.
One woman had seen her son escape the mob by running from roof to roof, leaping in huge bounds. But they finally caught him and threw him off a roof and onto the ground, where others caught him, beat him, and set him on fire.
They had seen an old man trying to save his son from a mysterious combustible powder that the mob was throwing at people. The old man had smothered the flames from his son with his own body, and the mob then stormed him and killed him and set him afire with the same powder.
Later I discovered it was white phosphorous, banned by the Geneva Convention, and still used by the Israeli Army against Palestinians, and in other "hot spots" around the world. It ignites upon contact with a human body. Third-degree burns kill the victim in a most agonizing way.
So, now we were in one of those "hot spots." What a neat, clinical euphemism. My golden retriever gets "hot spots." People being scalped alive, their limbs hacked, boys and girls raped and beaten and dismembered, this qualified as a "hot spot," I remember thinking.
Our bedroom was full. There was only enough space for the thirty-odd people to sit, and they sat quietly. I started taking pictures with my Nikon. After about six shots, Surinder came in. "What are you doing?! Don't humiliate them, Jesus CHRIST, Mike!!" I put away the camera, ashamed.
Yelling from the mob outside terrified me. They could easily spill over the wall, just as the women and children in our bedroom had done. We would all be hacked or burned to death.
But the Calebs stayed absolutely calm. Leila, the daughter, was 18 and in nursing school. She quietly and efficiently nursed their wounds, tying makeshift bandages and talking in a low calm voice to each one. Surinder helped her. I felt quite useless, occasionally filming.
Jane Caleb, the Bishop's British wife, walked quickly between the dining room and kitchen, coaxing people to eat. They ate slowly and silently. They were all in shock. Jane had barely escaped the mob. She had been across the street in the church, editing the church magazine. As the mob approached, she and her staff climbed onto the church's roof, some five stories in height.
"We had nowhere else to go," she said. "Had they followed us, we could have done nothing but throw ourselves over the edge." But all the mob wanted was the bamboo sticks holding up the sweet peas in the church garden. Armed with those, they left to cruise the streets, and Jane and her staff quickly descended and crossed the street into the safety of the compound.
The Bishop did something extraordinary. He walked outside the house and into the front yard. The mob was RIGHT THERE. I grabbed my Bolex and from a distance, filmed him walking. But I was too afraid the mob would see me, and I hid when he came close to them. The camera may trigger their rage and they would climb over the gate or just break it down.
I walked up behind Bishop Caleb. He did not actually face the mob. He just walked in his garden, in full view of them. They were young men, with clean clothes, and new shoes, and haircuts. They looked like fraternity boys anywhere in the world.
"Open the gate! We know you're harboring Sikhs!" they shouted. The Bishop just kept walking in a circle, slowly, with great dignity, his white robes flowing, his cross hanging across his broad chest. He said nothing. The mob somehow became silent, perhaps amazed at his calm and his authority. They went away and Bishop Caleb walked back into the house.
It was the bravest thing I've ever seen. I almost wept, overcome by his courage.
The next day the mob returned. "Open the gates!" they chanted. Then they again dispersed, slowly.
Inside, a totally calm Bishop Caleb got on the phone to a General. "Um, ah, General, do you think you could send some police or something over here? You see, we've got a bunch of boys who are saying we're harboring people inside. They are, sort of, you know, threatening to enter the compound. So you know, if you could, you see, if some police could come over here and chase them away if possible?"
Talk about understatement. What could be more of an emergency? And he never said it was urgent. But he was understood. The police, however, never arrived.
"Time for croquet," said Leila Caleb. What? "Yes, time for croquet. We have to look normal, leading our lives," said the teenage Leila. And so, with an occasional young man peering over the walls, we played croquet.
I filmed the surreal scene with my Bolex. Leila was playing with her British cousin Lucy. She had landed from England at the very moment the massacre began outside the compound.
Seeing us, a young Sikh girl decided she would also brave the open air. She grabbed the Bishop's bicycle. It was a woman's bicycle, easier for the Bishop to ride because of his robes. She rode around and around the compound in a circle, almost defying anyone to see her. She was an inspiration, determined not to let this "ethnic cleansing" (another very cute euphemism) intimidate her.
I ran inside for my Bolex and filmed her riding in circles.
"Ah, um, Mike, could you do something?" asked Bishop Caleb. At last, I could be more than an observer, or a humiliating photographer. "Yes, Maqbool, of course."
He told me to get his car from the garage. He had to go to the All India Radio headquarters and speak to the nation. There were thousands of Sikhs being pulled from buses and trains and their own homes, scalped, raped, and massacred. Leaders of all religions were asked to convene daily at the radio station and broadcast their appeals for peace.
The servant opened the gates. There was nobody on the street. I will never forget the sight of an empty street, and the fear of total anarchy. Anybody or anything could be around the corner, ready to pounce. I would be driving around that corner in a few seconds. Nobody but I seemed at all worried. I was petrified.
We quickly opened the car's boot, and motioned for three young girls. They climbed in and we locked them inside and drove off into the anarchy of the empty streets.
Bishop Caleb must have talked to the girls before, because he had me stop in a certain neighborhood, where we let them out of the trunk. They were completely calm, and thanked him, and walked away.
How could they be so calm, I wondered. Were they not in mourning for lost relatives? Were they not frantic? Were they in shock? All I knew was, they seemed perfectly poised and courageous and walked briskly without a look back.
The next day, and the next, and the next, we filled the boot of the car with kids or women, dropped them off in their neighborhoods, and proceeded to All India Radio where Bishop Caleb delivered his talks, without a script, appealing in the most reasonable of ways, for people to calm down and help each other.
The killings ended as mysteriously as they had begun. There was no sign, no announcement. We had no idea that thousands upon thousands of people had died horrible deaths. Nor did we have any idea that the mob was, in reality, controlled and directed by Government forces.
That is another story for another day. Sikhs had been killed; Hindus had killed them. But other Hindus had also risked their lives to save Sikhs, both friends and strangers. The press would surely call this "ethnic riots," but they were, simply put, government-sponsored pogroms.
Soon our bedroom was empty, and the Bishop and his family and servants returned to their routines. I asked the servant lady if she had been afraid. "No, Bishop-Sahib is a man of God. I was never afraid."
I wondered what had kept Maqbool Caleb, Jane, daughter Leila, and son Sunil all so utterly tranquil. Perhaps it was indeed their faith, something I myself did not enjoy.
On the fifth day, I grabbed my Bolex and went to the spot where I had seen the portly Sikh gentleman burned to death. His body had been taken away. I filmed the remaining ashes that still lay in a heap at the spot.
Who was he? Perhaps a relative of those we had harbored? Would anybody who loved him ever know his fate? What about the fate of the thousands of others so mercilessly slain? And their survivors?
The Government and the authorities have yet to account for what they did - and failed to do.
Every year at Christmas, the survivors from the Rakab Ganj gurudwara send a gift and a card expressing their gratitude to the Bishop's family for their selfless and fearless actions.
Other Sikhs across the world who have heard this story have wished to formally honor the Calebs, but they have respectfully turned down such recognition. They say they were only performing their Christian duty to love their neighbors as themselves.
[Michael Singh is an award-winning television writer/producer.]
For an extensive bibliography of books, articles & films on 1984, please check out THE 1984 RECORD by CLICKING here.
First published on January 12, 2009; republished on October 31, 2015
Conversation about this article
1: Waryam Singh (Paris, France), January 13, 2009, 6:10 AM.
Thank you, Michael, for this extraordinary piece. It certainly helps define 1984 in my mind.
2: Harjit Singh (New Delhi, India), January 13, 2009, 6:12 AM.
This should be turned into a film and shared with people around the world.
3: Romesh Biswas (Kolkata, India), January 13, 2009, 6:23 AM.
And they think Mumbai's recent murders are the turning point for India? If that is true, we've already been spinning around for decades, chasing our tails ... especially after 1984. God help us!
4: Harjit Kaur (Los Angeles, U.S.A.), January 13, 2009, 10:45 AM.
What an extraordinary series of experiences you've had, Michael! Maybe there is a divine purpose behind it. I agree with the earlier comment - this needs to be turned into a feature film! You're a filmmaker, sitting in the heart of filmdom - you could turn this into a script and Hollywood would have to be blind to ignore it. Good luck!
5: Colleen Stratton (Los Angeles, U.S.A.), January 13, 2009, 1:36 PM.
I'm awestruck. It made me cry. I agree that this is a powerful tale that definitely needs to be made into a film! I'm a documentary filmmaker, and I've never seen any documentary about India - 1984. I know what a Herculean effort it takes to make a film. Michael, it says you are seeking funding to turn your footage into a film. Have you reached out to the Sikh community? There must be plenty of wealthy Sikhs in the world. I can't imagine a better investment for the Sikh community. I hope you can find people who want the world to know about this injustice, who will help you bring this beautiful story to the big screen! Good luck!
6: G.C. Singh (U.S.A.), January 13, 2009, 2:01 PM.
Michael's experiences in 1984 as an eyewitness are similar to tens of thousands of Sikhs who have gone through the Holocaust of 1984. However his interpretation of the political situation does not match the reality of Indira Gandhi's intentions towards Sikhs. His father's assertion that she recruited Bhindranwale to help her politically does not match the facts. Punjab only has 13 M.P.s out of 550 in Indian Parliament and really does not provide much leverage in terms of 'clawing back' to power. More importantly, Indira Gandhi already was in power before April 1980 when Bhinderanwale really became a household name after the killing of Government supported Nirankari Chief who was acquitted by pliant Indian courts for the cold blooded murder of 13 Sikhs on Vaisakhi of 1978. Bhindranwale only asked for political and economic justice for Sikhs and a rightful place in India as promised by Hindu leaders before partition The man who would sacrifice everything for the defence of the Sikh nation and Sikh identity was labeled as an 'agent' of the Congress party and was brutally murdered, but the so called Panthic leaders like Longowal, Tohra, etc. who were promoted as opponents of Congress party were safely escorted to guest houses in Army jeeps. The bogey of Khalistan was part of the massive disinformation and defamation campaign against Sikhs, to justify draconian laws, genocidal policies and the attack on Golden Temple to teach Sikhs a lesson. The ultimate bonus for Indira Gandhi was the windfall of polarized Hindu votes in the coming elections and perpetuation of dynastic rule.
7: Jag Singh (Birmingham, England), January 13, 2009, 2:12 PM.
Extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. If I wasn't aware of the events, I would have thought this to be a work of fiction of an incredibly imaginative man. Alas, this is the very true story of my Sikh brothers and sisters in 1984. What emotions this evokes in the reader, regardless of their religion! I thank Michael for his valiant efforts in recounting it all again, almost 25 years later, for us. I echo earlier pleas - make this into a feature film, so that future generations do not repeat such a tragedy.
8: Harman Singh (Philadelphia, U.S.A.), January 13, 2009, 2:28 PM.
Very vivid prose ... it bought tears to my eyes, and a lot of memories. I was in Calcutta in '84 when this carnage was going on. There were Hindu mobs in the streets destroying and looting property and burning Sikhs to death ... and then there were our Hindu neighbours who harbored us in their homes, gave us food and shielded us from the crowds outside. Shows the breadth of human emotion! I was only seven, and occasionally I would peep from behind the boarded doors and windows to take a glimpse of the outside world. I saw people turning on their neighbours, destroying life and property. And a few weeks later, I saw those same people organizing peace prayers in the streets of Calcutta ... what a charade! There are a few moments in each person's life that define him/her as a human being. Glimpses from those fateful days surely taught me what human beings are capable of - in their darkest and brightest of moments. God bless you for sharing your experience with the community, and Godspeed with your film project.
9: Kamaljit Singh Khalsa (Delhi), January 14, 2009, 2:59 AM.
Thank you for posting this article. This captures what happened. Please publish some more photographs.
10: Tejwant (U.S.A.), January 14, 2009, 12:44 PM.
My eldest brother from London was in New Delhi on business during the pogroms. His supplier, who is a Jain, hid him in his car and took him to my cousin's house which was on the other side of town. The Bishop, although being a Chirstian, practiced the universal values of Sikhism. The advantage he had was his non-Sikh identity. Kudos to all those who helped the helpless. Michael, I am curious to know how your experience changed you and your brother internally? Would love to hear that. Thanks for sharing.
11: Jagpal S. Tiwana (Dartmouth, Canada), January 14, 2009, 5:51 PM.
Michael has recorded a piece of history at great risk to his life. This is amazing. Michael must get some award or recognition from Sikh bodies. Credit is also due to sikhchic.com to get this story from Michael. Some friends are interested in knowing more about Michael, especially his father's name who was so highly placed in India.
12: Michael Singh (Los Angeles, U.S.A.), January 15, 2009, 8:53 AM.
Tejwant: Thank you for sharing your brother's experience vis-a-vis a Jain. So many Sikhs have such stories of being saved by non-Sikhs, it is truly heartening to hear. My brother and I never discussed 1984 between ourselves, only with others, I guess because we were there together; there was nothing left to say. He passed away at age 42 in 1996. Regarding internal changes: 1) 1984 gave me a new standard for courage, for one. The Bishop remains the bravest man I've ever seen in action. I've known him and his family since childhood and their love and humility is an inspiration. 2) I am also inspired now by the courage of those who wear turbans. Like women here in America who wear hijabs, Sikh bravery in wearing the turban always amazes me. They are moving targets not only for disturbed individuals, but for prejudiced people and, of course, Government-sponsored massacres. 3) My own cowardice in failing to try to save the Sikh with the red turban also stays with me, as does my denial of my own half-Sikh identity. It was to protect myself, yes, but it also told me how quickly I will assume my 'white' identity for practical reasons. 4) My contempt has grown for the abusers of power and the vengeance of political leaders. What was the mob thinking and feeling while each of them butchered? I would like to interview them for my film, as well as some of the politicians implicated. 5) I've been inspired by the courage of a man I now have the privilege of calling my friend, Attorney H.S. Phoolka, well-known of course for his prolonged fight for justice for the victims despite death threats leveled at him and his family. In my view, he is a true hero. I have filmed an interview with him and other witnesses. 6) Lastly, the experience has made me appreciate the gifts given to me and the fragility of our time on this earth together. I hope I have answered your query sufficiently.
13: Michael Singh (Los Angeles, U.S.A.), January 15, 2009, 8:55 AM.
Thank you for your very kind words, Jagpal. I hope I have not placed myself on the level of bravery. It was the Bishop, his family and his staff who were truly brave. I merely recorded it. Regarding myself, I am a documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles and have just completed a 2-hr film on America's controversial relationship with Israel, Islam, and the Arabs. My next step is to persuade American foundations who fund documentaries on American television, to fund a film based on my 1984 experiences. The working title is "Riding the Tiger". I am also hoping to find a wealthy Sikh or two who wishes to at least get my team re-started on this project after it has been gathering dust for two decades. As you may know, a well-made one-hour film such as "Riding the Tiger" requires about 5,000 man-hours by a team of professionals over six months, which, with other expenses, translates into about $250,000. If we manage to raise that money in the next month or two, it would be done in time to commemorate the 25th anniversary, of course. So that is the road I am presently taking. The reality, however, is that unlike the Jews for example, the track record of Sikhs funding films about their history is not very good. The responses such as yours are most inspiring to me. So perhaps I can change that track record! Regarding my father, his name was Dr. Ram Singh. He was Principal of Baring Christian College in Batala, Punjab from 1958-1977. He turned down Mrs. Gandhi's offer, which I regretted but he never did. I hope I have answered your questions.
14: Veronica Sidhu (Scotch Plains, New Jersey, U.S.A.), January 15, 2009, 9:16 AM.
The horror is compounded by the fact that Indira Gandhi used an old political trick - make a small but prosperous group to blame and then unite the majority against them, and behind you, to win support. Look at Hitler and the Jews, etc. She sold her soul and her life to the devil to keep her family in power. I believe it was a very conscious decision on her part.
15: Prabhu Singh Khalsa (EspaÃ±ola, New Mexico, U.S.A.), January 15, 2009, 9:28 AM.
This article is incredible! It really brings to life the sad reality of India in 1984. It can also bring feelings of rage when you think of the perpetrators of these crimes, and how they still wield power in India to this day. This rage is what 'wannabe' Sikhs are using to recruit alienated western Sikh youth to political movements. It's all over the internet and Sikh youth discussion forums. People hardly discuss and share the meanings of Gurbani or their inspiration in life. Instead, they are constantly arguing about issues like these and all the "rules" of being a Sikh. I appreciate that the author lives today to recount this story. I pray that we honor the heroes of 1984 and of Sikh history and live to be the beloved Sikhs of the Guru for which so many lives have been sacrificed. In the words of Guru Gobind Singh, a shabad I sing every morning (deh shiva bar mohe ihai): "O God, grant me this boon that I may not hesitate from performing good actions. That I may not fear the enemy when I go to the good fight and assuredly I may become victorious. May thy glory be ingrained in my mind, and my highest ambition be singing thy praises. When this mortal life comes to an end, may I die in the midst of the good fight with limitless courage."
16: Puneet Sarna (India), January 15, 2009, 11:20 AM.
A flawless and true depiction of what happened in 1984. A commendable effort.
17: Gurneet Singh (Pune, India), January 15, 2009, 11:23 AM.
Michael ji: My heart cries for the genocide which happened then in 1984. I was born at that time, so haven't really seen anything. But I always wanted to know the truth. The Truth about Bhindranwale and Indira Gandhi. The comments by Veronica are spot on as the same party (Congress) is still using the same methods in Gujerat and Maharashtra. I wonder what kind of society am I living in. I am really very sad. It leaves me to be unpatriotic, but a substantial part of the Indian army still comprises of Sikhs. The people of Punjab brought Congress into power in the last state assembly polls (prior to the current, i.e.) This is something beyond imagination (for my young mind). There are some issues which need to be addressed at the present time. I appeal to all our Sikh brothers and sisters to be informed and unified. Be disciplined and committed to our faith. Thanks for publishing this post. I think I have received the most authentic information about the events. I wish Peace to all our people who were affected by the heinous acts. May WaheGuru give all of us strength and wisdom.
18: Tejwant (U.S.A.), January 15, 2009, 7:35 PM.
Michael, thanks for your candor. I am sure you carry Surinder's spiritual torch with you and the experience you both had together during those tragic days must have created the unbroken bond of true yaari and brotherhood. I would not say 'Thanks for the bravura you showed' because to be brave is in the Sikh DNA, but it was much more than that. It was the famine within to share with others who were not there that made you go through all this danger. I was in Brasil then and a bit alienated from my culture. Hence it was more a mental confusion and bewilderment for me that how the head of the state of a country can have the gall to attack the most sacred shrine of the Sikhs, the only one in any religion or faith with 4 doors to welcome all humanity. Good luck in your future projects. And, Michael, thanks for being our eyes, ears and tears.
19: Harman Singh (Philadelphia, U.S.A.), January 16, 2009, 1:12 AM.
Michael, just wanted to offer you a quick suggestion for raising money for your film. There is a reason why our Gurus placed such significance in the sangat. It has been my experience that the sangat never disappoints, whether your quest is spiritual, physical or financial, provided your intent is true. It is because, as Sikhism says, the Lord resides in the sangat. Your cause is just, your intentions are noble ... and the Lord has Himself chosen you for this seva. Here is my suggestion: Put together a 2-5 minute short clip, a preview if you will, of your project. You write so eloquently, I am sure you will have no trouble transfering your thoughts onto film. Then post it on the internet, on You-tube or on your website. Then let the sangat work its magic. People like me can show the film clip at our respective gurdwaras, in U.S./ Canada/ U.K. and around the world for that matter, and ask for donations. We can then funnel in the donations to an account that you have set up for the film. I can assure you, in our gurdwara in Philadelphia alone, there would be no problem raising few thousand dollars. And if you can set up a website where people can donate securely online, that would be immensely helpful for the younger generation. Think locally, act globally. If Obama could get it done by involving the masses in a grassroots campaign, then why not the Sikh community, especially when we have such good infrastructure globally through our gurdwaras. So, my suggestion is, dont wait for one or two big sponsers, when the Guru has blessed you with a fraternity of 30 million. It is my strong belief that Sikhism is an idea whose time has come. The internet has really redefined the concept of community and sangat. It is time to tap into its potential.
20: Sunny Singh (London, U.K.), January 16, 2009, 7:44 AM.
Even though I was barely ten when 1984 occurred, reading this made me feel as if I had been transported back in time to 1984, to live through this most painful carnage. That said, could some of our more knowledgeable members help explain to me what exactly the author meant in reference to Mrs Gandhi and her relationship with son Sanjay, when he writes: "He had egged her on to push for forced sterilization of poor farm and city women and men". Does the above sentence have any context to Punjab or am I just missing the point.
21: Gayle O'Shaughnessy (Georgia, U.S.A.), January 16, 2009, 11:35 AM.
I just finished reading this shocking article. I was horrified by the events and man's inhumanity to man. Where do people come from who are willing to participate in such primitive atrocities? The description of seemingly ordinary young men participating in such savagery reminds me in a way of a novel I read in high school called 'Lord of the Flies' where school boys stranded on an island disintegrate into savages and murderers. The destruction of the centuries-old sacred buildings is heartbreaking. The honesty with which Michael protrays himself is striking and makes his writing more powerful. I am thinking 'honesty' because his self portrait was not always flattering. His actions at every turn in 1984 were different than mine would have been. He's certainly much braver than me.
22: Ravinder Singh (Sydney, Australia), January 16, 2009, 6:53 PM.
Michael: I really hope that you create a movie on the events of '84, one that is comparable in quality to some of the best movies made by Hollywood, so that this can be shown not just to Sikhs & Indians but to the world.
23: Prof. Iqbal Singh (Raleigh, N.C., U.S.A.), January 18, 2009, 1:11 PM.
Michael: you have done a great service to humanity-at-large with the account. The interpretation about Bhindranwale being Indira Gandhi's "henchman" s a discarded theory for it takes attention away from the simmering unrest in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Punjab. Indeed, Indira Gandhi did unsuccessfully endeavor to wean away Bhindranwale from his cause - that of justice, equality and fair play for Punjab and Sikhs through attempts to coax him with favors to play a henchman's role. Several detailed studies based on extensive research have put the "henchman" theory to rest. Let me hasten to add that the essence and purpose of the account is indeed powerful and heart-rending. Thanks.
24: Shelby S. (Roswell, Georgia, U.S.A.), January 25, 2009, 3:50 PM.
Thank you for writing this heartbreaking account of your experience. I have a Sikh student this year and so have taken some time to read about the Sikhs and their history. I will never understand the killing and torture of innocents - who are these people who can do such things? As a Jewish woman, I, too, feel the weight of history when I think back on the last century. May we all see better days, but never forget the past.
25: Amardeep (U.S.A.), January 27, 2009, 1:10 PM.
Anyone has Sardar H.S.Phoolka's e-mail address? I would like to send him and his family a few words of support and encouragement.
26: Amarjeet (Ludhiana, Punjab), February 18, 2009, 1:41 PM.
Mr. Caleb proved his worth by being a true Bishop, by abiding by the basic virtues on which the true conscience of a man is based. I sincerely request you to share more photos, sounds and clips you recorded. On behalf of all those who read this but could not comment and quietly left, because they were either overpowered by tears or left exhausted, I sincerely thank you for such an account.
27: K. Singh (Sydney, Australia), June 06, 2009, 4:59 AM.
This is a great service to Sikhi and humanity. It begs the question: why a money-rich organization such as the S.G.P.C. couldn't fund a project like this instead of spending money on marble for gurdwaras. The marble simply increases aesthetic appeal but corrodes historical value.
28: Singh (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), June 24, 2009, 3:57 PM.
It's a heartbreaking story. All these victims of the pogroms and their consequences should get justice. Thank you, Michael Singh, for sharing your experiences with us. We Sikhs should never forget 1984, even youngsters like me. Never forget '84!
29: Rajveer Singh (Christchurch, New Zealand), August 25, 2010, 6:07 AM.
Michael, what an inspiring story! What I liked the most was its simplicity and at the same time the horrific, timely and accurate descriptions of the events that happened. Sikhs really suffered a lot which the world can't actually describe. I have my own part of the story ... members of my family suffered in some way or the other during the Delhi pogroms. My dad was on his way to work when a beggar warned him of mobs setting fire to any Sikh they saw. He was thus saved by a few seconds' warning. My uncle was on his way to work when a South Indian man pleaded him to run away as he saw hundreds of Sikhs thrown alive from a bridge in old Delhi. All our shops were burned to the ground, as were most other Sikh businesses. My dad has photos of their burnt shops. I've got an old receipt that was distributed by a local Delhi Gurdwara last year ... dated November 1984, it shows the purchase of 2000 tyres from a tyre shop in Filmistan, New Delhi, for putting around the necks of Sikhs as they were put on fire. The stories shall never end, the pain shall never end, the struggle shall never end, the desire to achieve justice shall never end ... The fire burns and shall burn forever till the day till we get proper closure.
30: Kulbir Singh Ghai (San Diego, California, U.S.A.), December 03, 2010, 10:14 AM.
Very bold effort.
31: Rakesh Varma (Winnetka, CA, U.S.A.), April 16, 2011, 10:00 AM.
Michael, you have done a superb job in documenting the most horrific violence that occurred in 1984. The courage and calm Bishop Maqbool Caleb demonstrated during that most difficult time is truly noteworthy.
32: Amarjit Singh Chandan (London, United Kingdom), October 31, 2015, 10:57 AM.
Michael is such an affable person. His full name is Michael Mohinder Singh. Like father, like son -- his father Ram Singh (Hoshiarpuri, a Christian convert) was Principal of Baring Union Christian College in Batala for many years. The family embodies the true Nanakpanthi qualities - na Hindu na Mussalman na Sikh and na Isaaee. As Puran Singh wrote: Punjab sara jeeuNda, GuraaN de naaN te.
33: Arjan Singh (USA), November 02, 2015, 6:34 PM.
Thanks to sikhchic.com for publishing this write-up again. The key takeaways must be: 1) We must not let this happen again, and create a detection and prevention framework. 2) One cannot depend on the good hearts of the society; the Sikh community must work with their local law enforcement in their respective countries to get protection. 3) We must not use violence as in any modern and civic society the rule of law prevails; especially since the Sikhs shall always remain a most visible minority. However, in India, the rule of law does not exist, so the Sikh community must be creative in defending themselves when the next cycle of violence is unleashed (it seems like this cycle is going to happen sooner than later, the dark clouds are already gathering).
34: Tejbir Singh (United States), November 02, 2015, 7:13 PM.
I was very young at the time this happened, but your article has only given me a clearer picture of the demonic personality of the majority of Hindus and side by side the angelic personality of the bishop. One thing is there, I wish I was mature at that time, I would have shown the mob what a Singh is, those bastards. God willing, they will learn to repent what they did.